April 19th, 2012 marks the 18-year(!) anniversary of the release of Nas' Illmatic. Which, scarily, means that humans exist on this planet who can legally drive, vote, and serve in our armed forces that are younger than this hip-hop classic amongst hip-hop classics. We commemorated the occasion by speaking with the great Fab 5 Freddy to discuss his memories of directing the music video for "One Love" - a song that still remains after all this time perhaps the most sophisticated and definitive example of Nas' compositional and narrative talents. Join Fab as he takes his own trip down memory lane to the summer of '94 - recalling impromptu casting straight off the street, similarities between this video and Belly, the realness of QB verbal abuse, and how the clip for "One Love" was actually "The World Is Yours (Remix)" part deux.
When did you first meet Nas?
Fab 5 Freddy: I had interviewed him for Yo! MTV Raps during the [promotion for] Illmatic. This kid was clearly a prodigy of the game who had just dropped one of the greatest records I’d heard at that point. It was just unbelievable and uncanny how perfect [an album it] was just from A to Z. In the first few videos he did I felt that the videos had yet to capture the dynamism of the lyrics. And I could see, in my opinion, that some of the previous directors he had worked with up until that point might have been a bit intimidated or just didn’t get the performance that I thought should have been gotten from this guy. And I knew that I would be able to kinda almost shake him up. Because I remembered in the course of first meeting Nas and talking with him [that] he had a very kind of a low key vibe - real icy cool, calm, soft-spoken. But when he would get really excited about something he would get really bright and his pace and cadence would pick up. And I’d be like, wow, that’s really interesting. It’s like another character burst out of him. So I knew it was there and I knew I was gonna get it out of him. So he was like, yeah man, I’d like to work with you, man. I was like, shit, I’d love to work with you too. Let’s make it happen. So he got at his label and next thing I know I they was sending me music, and I wrote the concept.
Like you said, the song is a classic, and such a strong story. What do you recall about your directorial approach?
Fab 5 Freddy: I think the thing when I think back about the "One Love" video now - my process and methodology was very similar to [when I directed Gang Starr's] "Just to Get a Rep" video. Of course, it was a significantly bigger budget but the core was the same in that all those people [cast in the video] with the exception of one or two were all the real dudes that Nas grew up with in Queensbridge.
[For the prison scenes, we] shot in a jail that we found in Jersey that looked like a prison. That was a very old local jail - somewhere someone would do 20 days, 30 days on some local shit. But it looked like a prison because it had the old grimy cells and shit. Plus we were able to get [access] and shoot. They put us on a floor that was actually above a floor where they actually had prisoners. It was interesting. And all those extras were dudes from Nas’ hood. We bused a bunch of dudes out there. There was a couple of dudes who grew up in Bed-Stuy near me who played themselves. So we did the whole lifting weights in the yard and all that shit - the visiting scene, [the scenes with] the dudes on the tiers in the cell.
What were some of the other QB touches?
Fab 5 Freddy: [Most] of the video was shot in Queensbridge, which was still quite rough and edgy at the time. The shot with the Bridge and the magic hour performance where the sky was really beautiful - that was shot the roof of Nas' building. The scene where Nas pushes the books off the table - "Written in school textbooks, bibles etc." - that was [filmed] in his apartment where he grew up. During the line, "I hate it when your moms cries," there’s a shot of a woman wiping a tear. That was his moms’ best friend. We were all in his crib, and she was just there. [Nas'] mother was still alive at the time. And I remember trying to talk to her, like, would she do [the cameo]. And she was like, oh no. But that was one of her best friends that lived in the building. So that’s all shot literally in the crib where Nas grew up.
Who did you cast in the role of the kid mentioned in the song's third verse? That's probably one of the most memorable and vivid character portraits from any song Nas has written.
Fab 5 Freddy: The little Black kid who plays [that part from the song] - "When I come back home nobody’s out but Shorty Doo Wop, rolling two Phillies together in the Bridge we call 'em oo-ops." The whole [casting of] that kid was significant because [as usual] when we had the auditions, all the wannabe actors showed up. They was all cornball. In terms of really having money to get real actors - that wasn’t there. So I had to ride around in the street and find this goddamn kid. And I’ll never forget - it was the day we were riding around Harlem getting some of the b-roll that we cut into the video. There was a tradition where dudes would wash hustler’s cars on street corners. There would be certain street corners where Harlem hustlers would bring their cars. And it’d be like a pop-up car wash so to speak with a whole fleet of double-parked, hot cars. And they’d be getting washed. And the owners of the cars would be kickin' it and mingling. And one of the little moments you see in the video that you just get a peek of is a dude washing a car on the corner, some people coming out of a bodega. That’s some of the little b-roll texture stuff.
We got a lot of that in Harlem - because in Queensbridge, that's an interesting area. It's super self-contained. I wasn’t getting those street textures that I needed. So I was riding around through Harlem getting some b-roll pick up shots. And we were stopped at a light. And I see these young shorties, and they was not more than 15-years-old. And one of the kids had a home cordless phone, right? But he was frontin' like it was a cell phone. This was when cell phones was still big and clunky and shit and a lot of cordless phones from the crib looked like cell phones at the time. I looked and I saw this kid. I said, yo. They was little shorties but they was trying to front like they was big boys gettin' it. So I told my man, yo, yo, yo pull over. So I said, "Shortie, come here." They were like, "What you want, mister? I was like, "Come here, let me talk to you for a minute." So I just start talking to 'em. So I’m kickin' it with 'em and they see I’m cool. But I’m also peeping that one of the kids, the main one, was real confident. I was like, okay, I can work with this kid. I basically knew that this kid was gonna be able to pull this shit off. So I said, "Listen, y’all heard of Nas?" He had just come out. They’re like, "Yeah, of course." I said, "Yo, well, I’m trying to do a video. You think you capable of being in a video? What do you think?" So everything checked out good. The kid was mad young. I said, "Listen give me your phone I’m gonna talk to your moms or whatever and see if we can make this happen." And that’s the little Black kid in the video. And shit, shortie’s performance was stellar.
Speaking of that scene, how did you feel a few years later when in Belly Hype Williams basically referenced the same part of "One Love," the scene with the kid on the bench kicking it with Nas?
Fab 5 Freddy: That’s a nice little reference. I’m flattered. Shit, I need to look at the shit again. Might a hit me then but it didn’t bang me over the head where I remembered it. I’m embarrassed to say I only seen [Belly] when it came out theatrically, and I should own a copy.
Thing is a very close friend of mine is the cinematographer, Malik Sayeed, who is a very important person when you talk about the whole development of Hype Williams and what he brought to the game. Malik is synonymous with that because he’s Hype’s primary DP and they both came in to the game at the same time. [Belly] was always visually dope. Just seeing those cats [in that film now] it [evokes memories] of that time. It was a stronger time for the game. When you look at it, there’s Nas, oh shit - there’s DMX. And everybody was really doing their thing then. In retrospect you look at periods of the game and you appreciate it just as a document.